This month, when Downton Abbey purrs, Rolls Royce–like, into its fifth season, I’ll be among the 10 million people who loyally tune in for the premiere; but I doubt I’ll stick around much longer. I rarely do. The luxe British import is just the latest in a string of once-beloved disappointments that have made me start to wonder, in this much-touted New Golden Age of television drama, whether the genre itself has feet of clay.
Like so many others, I immediately got wrapped up in the saga of the Crawley family, inhabitants of the titular estate, when Downton first aired four years ago. The inexhaustible anthropological spectacle of the British class system in action — trimmed with elaborate haberdashery and Brobdingnagian table settings, stuffed into an immense country house complete with a painterly park — proved as irresistible in 2011 as it had in 1981, when Brideshead Revisited aired, and 1971, when the weekly installments of Upstairs, Downstairs would find my Long Island family clustered around the black-and-white television in the playroom downstairs.
And yet by the third season of Downton, my interest was wandering. By that point, after all, the crisis that had propelled the first two seasons had been resolved. (Because of an entail as confounding as any Jane Austen ever dreamed up, the Crawleys, who had no son but three daughters, were in danger of losing their grand home unless one of the girls managed to fall in love with the nice but middle-class cousin who was the legal heir.) As a result, Season 3 — which consisted of a breathless jumble of financial disasters and eleventh-hour rescues, a tragic death from preeclampsia, and a surprise inheritance following yet another death, from Spanish flu — felt both empty and hyperactive. Long before the finale, when Matthew Crawley, the handsome blond heir, happily wedded at last to the aristocratic sylph Lady Mary Crawley and now the father of a bouncing baby boy, fatally swerved his roadster to avoid a truck on a bucolic country road, something precious had died.
But then, something so often dies around Season 3. A decade and a half since the premieres of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire showed us how complex and playful and serious television could be, it’s interesting to consider how many of even the most ingenious shows seem to start running in place after a few years. The macabre fun of Six Feet Under, with the hilariously inventive deaths that set each episode and its themes in action (will anyone who saw the “blue ice” episode ever feel safe again when a plane flies overhead?), grew stale after a couple of years: the pleasure waned as the portentousness waxed. So too with 24, the first season of which I watched, all at once, in about twenty-eight hours, so enthralled was I by the brilliance of its real-time narrative gimmick. Lost entranced me for a couple of seasons, until the metastasizing plot twists became more exhausting than entertaining. Scandal, like Revenge, provided guilty Cheez Whiz pleasures, delicious at first but a bit nauseating soon after. The list goes on.
In some cases, the reason for the disenchantment was clear: the novelty of a clever narrative device or story idea wore off over time, and revealed fairly conventional drama, characters, or themes beneath. (So in the cases of 24 and, later, House of Cards.) But in other shows the causes of disappointment were harder to pinpoint. Like Downton, many of these series had terrific acting and intelligent scripts, and were cleverly directed and beautifully produced. Yet even in these shows the tension soon snapped. Why? The answer has less to do with the particulars of this or that series than with the DNA of the series form itself.
An important clue lies in the increasingly frantic state of affairs of Downton Season 4: To the already crowded narrative mix the writers added a rape and a second murder rap for one homicide-prone character. If all the busyness sounds compensatory, that’s because it is. From the start the series presented itself as a drama about the house and its fate. The marriage plot served that larger story, the simmering flirtation between its ostensibly mismatched leads giving a crucial larger coherence to the otherwise necessarily episodic goings-on. But after Lady Mary married Matthew and that problem was resolved, the tension evaporated. Instead of plot there was only “plottiness.”
The difference between the two lies at the core of a problem that lovers of drama have been pondering for two millennia. In Aristotle’s Poetics, written around 340 b.c. and the first systematic critical examination in the Western tradition of how the elements of poetry and drama function, the philosopher asserts that plot is the “first principle” of drama and that plot must be “whole” — consisting of “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” The almost comic obviousness of that formulation conceals a deep wisdom. To say, as Aristotle goes on to do, that an ending “naturally follows some other thing . . . but has nothing following it” is to describe what we now call closure: the feeling of satisfaction that is produced when we have reached the logical, inevitable conclusion of an action.
The problem is that, if the imperative of a good narrative is that it must end, the imperative of the open-ended television series is that it must never end: it has to go on for as long as possible, generating income for the network that produced it. The irreducible incompatibility of these two imperatives, the one aesthetic, the other economic, creates a familiar dramatic conundrum. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it, “The whole reason you watch a TV show is because it ends. If I wanted a long, boring story with no point to it, I have my life!”
One of the hallmarks of even the best series is the sense of triviality that hovers after a while; without real endings there can be no real stakes. Endings in literature, like death in real life, give retrospective meaning to what’s come before: it’s because life (or a novel) can’t go on forever that what happens between the beginning and the end becomes precious, has value. (Pace Seinfeld, most of us feel that life has, or should have, a “point.”)
But in an ongoing series there can’t be any such finality. The most concrete expression of this in nearly all TV series is the fact that the main characters, on whom so much of a show’s popularity depends, can’t die. (Unless the actor playing the character does — or finds another job.) When the U.S. president played by Tony Goldwyn in Scandal gets shot in Season 2, or when the deliciously machinating Hamptons grande dame played by Madeleine Stowe in Revenge prepares to board a doomed private jet, you don’t believe for a minute that these characters will perish. We know that real life is real because certain kinds of actions have certain kinds of predictable consequences: when people get shot in the head, they tend not to emerge from the experience full of beans and looking fabulous. Because most series stop being able to have real consequences, we can’t, after a while, take them seriously. This is as true of movie franchises as it is of long-running TV series. As George R. R. Martin, the author of the Song of Ice and Fire series, has put it, “We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble — he’s surrounded by twenty people, but you know he’s gonna get away because he’s the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him.”
This Teflon quality — the refusal of a plot to adhere to the laws of cause and effect because it just has to keep going — is what we refer to when we talk disdainfully about soap-opera plotting. (The single greatest tribute to this kind of writing can be found in the climactic on-air speech given by Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie , a brilliant parody of the ad hoc, Rube Goldberg narratives that allow soaps to stay on the air for decades.) Naturally it isn’t a fatal problem in soaps or camp shows like Scandal, where a delicious unreality is the point. But we feel it more in serious shows. Not the least part of the excitement of watching HBO’s Game of Thrones is that main characters do die with thrilling regularity — because the overall plot, patterned on that of the novels, is finite. The execution at the end of Season 1 of Eddard Stark, a character who you had every reason to believe would be the linchpin of the ongoing plot, was so startling and exciting because you realized that here, for once, serious actions had serious consequences.
Writers and showrunners have traditionally tried to resolve this conflict — to keep closure and aperture in suspension — by creating smaller arcs: story lines rather than a story. Sometimes extending over weeks, sometimes over entire seasons — as, for instance, in Homeland — these subplots are meant to create a sense of shape and purpose within the open-ended structure of the show as a whole. As Downton Abbey reminds you, ongoing romantic attraction — an unresolved marriage plot, basically — is one favorite means of creating a sense of narrative purpose — although it’s significant that even these plots get irritating when stretched to unrealistic lengths. (Think of how many popular prime-time detective series, from Moonlighting in the Eighties to The X-Files a decade later to Bones today, were fueled by subterranean attractions between their mismatched male and female leads; and think of how many ran out of gas, as Moonlighting notoriously did, when the attraction was consummated.) But the history of television is filled with desperate gambits to sustain interest by means of other kinds of miniaturized plots. Even the most die-hard Friday Night Lights fans, a group in which I include myself, scratched their heads during Season 2’s hiding-the-body-of-the-accidentally-murdered-attempted-rapist subplot, which the writers sensibly junked, without apology, partway through the season.
A concatenation of these smaller arcs, however, begins to feel like a meal of hors d’oeuvres: incident comes to replace action. As Seinfeld and Aristotle both knew, the irony of dramatic entertainment is that, although we want it to be “life-like” in certain ways, we also want it to have a shapeliness that life often seems to lack. It is no coincidence that some of the finest recent series are those that seemed to be moving all along, over relatively few seasons (four or five at most), to a single climax that capped what had come before with a grand meaning: the discovery and settlement of Earth and the creation of a new hybrid species in Battlestar Galactica, which was the only logical resolution of the human-Cylon war, or the achievement of a substantial career for the long-suffering wife of the football coach in Friday Night Lights, whose macho milieu turned out to conceal a feminist kick.
No such climax seems possible in Downton, now that the real plot is over. The house is safe, an heir duly produced: What could the stakes be at this point? The only way to create them, apparently, is to manufacture new marriage plots, which is precisely what the creators of the show have been doing, engineering possible matches not only for the widowed Lady Mary but for her irascible grandmother, her former mother-in-law, and her brother-in-law. But I doubt that I’ll hear those wedding bells. For me, the show is over, although I have no doubt it will go on.